Maintaining a happy marriage isn’t complicated. In fact, it can be simple. The keys to a happy union are feasible and fairly straightforward. Which isn’t the same as easy and effortless. Because a happy, healthy marriage requires work from both spouses. Anything worthwhile does.
Below, Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist, spells out the simple keys. She also reveals how she helps her clients cultivate these keys—and how you and your spouse can, too.
Key #1: Make Time
“If a couple isn’t spending enough time together, and if that time being spent isn’t of quality, no other thing that we try to accomplish in therapy is going to matter much,” said Thorn, who practices at Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah. She gives her clients this formula for the minimum amount of time to spend together.
- One hour a week to discuss schedules. This is when you review everything from what’s happening at work to who’s picking up the kids. Talking about your upcoming days gives spouses insight into moments they aren’t present for. For instance, your spouse tells you he or she has an important presentation. You can ask if your spouse needs any help and check to see how it went. Plus, if your spouse is stressed that day, you’ll know why. And you’ll know not to bring up any tough topics.
- Two hours a week for date night. Put this on the calendar, and hire a sitter if you need one. This is a night for spouses to connect, relax, flirt, have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Save any talk about relationship problems for another time.
- 15 minutes each day to check in. This check-in is for connecting emotionally, where you might ask: “How are you feeling today?” “You had mentioned you had a stressful meeting coming up, how do you feel it went?” “I know you were planning to run errands all day with the kids, are you feeling stressed? Is there anything I can do for you?” You can spread this out throughout the day, and talk on the phone, text or email. Thorn encourages couples to talk on the phone whenever they can.
- A weekend getaway every two to three months. “It might require a little more organization and effort. But when a couple gets frequent opportunities for extended quality time, it can help both partners decompress and get closer than they’re able to otherwise,” Thorn said. That’s because a big issue for couples is distraction. They get so distracted with kids, work, finances, social obligations, home and other responsibilities that they neglect each other.
Key #2: Focus on Friendship
Thorn finds that many of her clients become so focused on solving their issues that they forget how to be friends. And yet “a friendship is a large part of the basis of a good committed relationship.”
Thorn encourages couples to think about what friendship means to them, what they look for in a friendship and what is missing in their friendship with their partner. She also encourages partners to ask lots of questions about each other on their date nights. After all, friendship includes finding out what your friend likes and who your friend is. You might think you know everything about your partner already, but people change, evolve and are continually shaped by their new experiences, she said.
When you’re asking questions, Thorn suggested asking additional questions about your spouse’s answer. She shared this example: “What is your favorite color?” Your partner says, “Red.” So you ask, “Why red?” “Has red always been your favorite color?” “When did that become your favorite color?” “Do you like all things red, or do you prefer it only in specific situations? Is it your favorite color of flower? Your favorite color to wear? Your favorite color of decor?” “How does red make you feel?”
She typically has clients use Dr. John Gottman’s 20 Questions Game from his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Key #3: Manage Stress Well
Thorn often sees partners take their stress out on each other—instead of learning how to manage stress effectively. She encourages her clients to do three things: self-soothe, carve out time for play, and turn toward each other.
For starters, it’s important to learn the signs that you’re stressed out. Then it’s important to implement relaxation techniques. “Different things work for different people,” Thorn said. Some examples include: practicing deep breathing, listening to calming music, moving your body, taking warm showers. “The more we can own our own stress and do something about it, the less likely we are to place blame on our partner for the things that go wrong around us.”
Play is powerful for all adults. According to Thorn, “Creating time to let loose and have fun, as individuals and together, helps us better manage our emotions, and can be a stress reliever.” Plus, play strengthens your bond and helps you get perspective on what’s really important to both of you, she said.
Thorn works with one couple that plays by hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Another couple cooks together. A third couple attends plays and theater events.
Instead of lashing out at your partner, say: “I’m feeling so stressed.” Or if you notice that your partner is distant or distracted, let your spouse know that you see that he or she seems stressed. Talk about why your partner is overwhelmed and what might help, such as shifting responsibilities, hiring help or creating more alone time.
Both partners must manage their own emotions so they don’t personalize each other’s stress and can genuinely help.
These keys aren’t a cure-all for every relationship problem, Thorn said. “But you’d be surprised at how much good and change can come from implementing these three simple things.”
Hikers photo available from Shutterstock